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auto | biography – a tribute

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This week, we attended a memorial service of a friend and editor that one of us anyway, had known for quite a long time and the other, for not so long but had some sense of him from our work together. Both of us had worked with F. over the course of only a year for one, and many for the other, but he had become to each of us a kind of mentor, and certainly a mentor any writer who was interested in, or mired in the subject of biography, for this was Fred’s stock and trade, and one in which we too had dealt or were dealing.

Fred was a great writer and editor; known in his profession, widely respected as a teacher and writer and known to each of us for we had both contributed to his series, Biography and Source Studies, which came out in different volumes (the last with both of us was Volume 5, editor, Fred Karl).

I had never met Fred, but despite that, I felt I knew him through our work and so the drive to his service in New York was not a hardship. It was a simple way to pay honor to a man who had been kind to me and smart and had been good enough to ask for my contribution to his esteemed series even when I didn’t think I deserved the accolade. Nonetheless, Fred worked with me, honing the piece and insisting on my contribution, which after months of work was finally in good enough shape and was published. As far as I know, this volume was the last that Fred published before he died and I am honored to be included in such a series with other writers far more talented and widely published than I.

The trip to New York City was longer than expected, the traffic awful, the traffic jam that held us at the tunnel in Boston for over an hour. IT was not an easy journey by any stretch, yet still, we were glad to make it for Fred, because we felt it was important to his family and more, we wanted to pay our respects. We packed our blacks, our darkest clothes, we prepared the car and we made our way through the day and arrived just in time to shower and get ready before heading to the service.

One is never sure what to expect at such events. Will there be much weeping as I have witnessed, or it will it be like an Irish wake with much laughter and people telling stories of the recent past and regaling us with jokes and humorous anecdotes. As fitting, it was neither. We gathered, about a hundred or so of us, or just shy, in a room off of New York University and one by one, various eulogists spoke of Fred. They were as diverse as he himself was and each had a different side of Fred that they conveyed – the grandchildren spoke of baseball and transatlantic phone calls to get the Yankees score, of Fred’s dislike of the Yanks, of the way he would hide Hershey’s kisses in his beard. The adults, as fitting, more solemn, and spoke of his teaching, his organization, his love of his work, and of course, his friends and family – his lovely daughters – who in groups and one by one told of a man who was frail and small in size but large in personality and who gave to the world as much as he possibly could, always working on more than one book at a time and writing some of the greatest biographies of our time on Kafka, Joseph Conrad and other figures who, in many ways, were no more Fred’s superior but his equal in many ways. A great biographer for a great subject, and he wrote his books and achieved his measure of fame and renown and Fred was known and respected as one of the best and most important, if such words apply, writers and biographers of our time.

But this is not what touched me. Of course, the thing that strikes the most at such events is how very short a life is, how fragile and how brief. We move through it as if we have all the time in the world. At twenty we are invincible, at thirty we are still young, at forty we begin to see commercials for our gray hair and vitamins made just for us, and by our mid forties or even earlier now, we begin to see the depressing commercials about life insurance that states “if you were born between the years 1946 and 1966” and then it strikes you that for as young and hip as you were or used to be or think you still are, for as young as you feel and for as much as it feels like yesterday that you were getting carded at clubs in NY and carded for cigarettes and being told you are “too young” for all sorts of things, you are now almost too old. That you work with people who were born the year you graduated from college, which is astounding to think about. It means you are getting older, and like our Fred, you are nearing that time when your time will be up and somewhere, some day, you pray that there will be those who will honor you in such a way that brings out the very best parts of you and your successes the way I saw so many stand up and do for Fred. He was honored, he was loved, but he was gone, and it seemed to me as I sat there that it was so unfair that his life had been so short. Never mind that he was surely in his seventies or perhaps even eighties (I’m honestly not sure), he still seemed too young, the way I feel too young to have to worry about life insurance or worse, losing my own husband. I always say that I must die first – I must be the first to go, because I could not stand it to live in the world without him.

The same holds true of my friends; I must be the first to die and conquer, if it exists, the brave new world of the afterlife because I am too afraid to be left in this world by myself. Chalk it up to fear of abandonment, but I cannot face this life alone, yet my fear of death, strong as it is, is no match for sitting as I saw Fred’s beautiful but deeply sorrowful wife, at his service. She seemed so alone, so fragile and so strong in her way but just barely masking a fragility that comes of losing someone you love so deeply that life without him or her seems surely impossible. Yet perhaps the worst part of all is that you life. Most of the time, you live and you go on and the bills still come and you still have to eat and cook for yourself and you have to manage (how I hate the word). You have to “find a way” as they say, when in your previous life with this person alive, the way you found your way was through him or her – only they knew where the slippers were, the remote, the extra blankets. Only they could find the remote, fix the VCR, tell you everything would be okay (and have you believe them). Only they could understand the French subway system, the Metro and now you’re afraid to make a move on your own, unless it was the part of the roof that you held up because without your Other, your partner or other half or whatever you want to call him or her, you are completely and utterly lost.

This is what I saw – a group of us all trying to be strong and see our way through and tell each other the okays and the yes, we’ll manage and the so on and on and yet underneath it all I knew that there was a greater or lesser part that would not manage. It would be different for each of us, more or less profound, but there nonetheless. In my case, I lose an editor and friend. But rue the day it is my turn or my husband’s turn or my best friend’s turn. God help me should those I love die before I do. I could not stand it, the same way I saw them unable to handle the fear and the loss when cancer almost took my life just a few short years ago and I was still in my early thirties and by measure “young.” On e by one I saw them come to my room, look at me, frail and pale and wounded and missing a third of my leg and laying there on the bed and the mourning had begun. I mourned the lost part of me, the huge part of my calf that was gone (it could have been worse), and they mourned the me that we still did not know would live; Death, at that time, was possible and death is possible even now, today or any day.

Anything I say would be trite, so it will just have to be. Live your life now, and live it as you wish to be eulogized and remembered. If you want to be remembered as a good person, then for fuck’s sake, live as one. If not, then be quiet and stop moaning. To not die is not an option in the final account. In the end, it ends and we all die, but for now, we live and by god, while I still can, I plan to live as much as I can while I can and may I do so that many turn out for my funeral and service and that one by one, each person stands and shares a piece of me that is irreplaceable, ethereal yes, but uniquely me.

May the same be true for you.

sadi ranson-polizzotti | autumn | 2004

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